Midnight Page 41


"There're several," Harry said.


"—then I could slip out in the rain, try their house, see if anyone's home. At this hour they'll probably be at work. If no one's there, maybe I can get a call out on their phone."


"Wait, wait," Tessa said. "What's all this about phones? The phones don't work."


Sam shook his head. "All we know is that the public phones are out of service, as is Harry's. But remember New Wave controls the telephone-company computer, so they can probably be selective about what lines they shut down. I'll bet they haven't cut off the service of those who've already undergone this … conversion. They wouldn't deny themselves communication. Especially not now, in a crisis, and with this scheme of theirs nearly accomplished. There's a better than fifty-percent chance that the only lines they've shut down are the ones they figure we might get to—pay phones, phones in public places—like the motel—and the phones in the homes of people who haven't yet been converted."


16


Fear permeated Loman Watkins, saturated him so completely that if it had possessed substance, it could have been wrung from his flesh in quantities to rival the rivers currently pouring forth from the storm-racked sky outside. He was afraid for himself, for what he might yet become. He was afraid for his son, too, who sat at the computer in an utterly alien guise. And he was also afraid of his son, no use denying that, scared half to death of him and unable to touch him.


A flood of data coruscated across the screen in blurred green waves. Denny's glistening, liquid, silvery eyes—like puddles of mercury in his sockets—reflected the luminescent tides of letters, numbers, graphs, and charts. Unblinkingly.


Loman remembered what Shaddack had said at Peyser's house when he had seen that the man had regressed to a lupine form that could not have been a part of human genetic history. Regression was not merely—or even primarily—a physical process.


It was an example of mind over matter, of consciousness dictating form. Because they could no longer be ordinary people, and because they simply could not tolerate life as emotionless New people, they were seeking altered states in which existence was more endurable. And the boy had sought this state, had willed himself to become this grotesque thing.


"Denny?"


No response.


The boy had fallen entirely silent. Not even electronic noises issued from him any longer.


The metallic cords, in which the boy's fingers ended, vibrated continuously and sometimes throbbed as if irregular pulses of thick, inhuman blood were passing through them, cycling between organic and inorganic portions of the mechanism.


Loman's heart was pounding as fast as his running footsteps would have been if he could have fled. But he was held there by the weight of his fear. He had broken out in a sweat. He struggled to keep from throwing up the enormous meal he had just eaten.


Desperately he considered what he must do, and the first thing that occurred to him was to call Shaddack and seek his help. Surely Shaddack would understand what was happening and would know how to reverse this hideous metamorphosis and restore Denny to human form.


But that was wishful thinking. The Moonhawk project was now out of control, following dark routes down into midnight horrors that Tom Shaddack had never foreseen and could not avert.


Besides, Shaddack would not be frightened by what was happening to Denny. He would be delighted, exuberant. Shaddack would view the boy's transformation as an elevated altered state, as much to be desired as the degeneration of the regressives was to be avoided and scorned. Here was what Shaddack truly sought, the forced evolution of man into machine.


In memory even now, Loman could hear Shaddack talking agitatedly in Peyser's blood-spattered bedroom: "… what I don't understand is why the regressives have all chosen a subhuman condition. Surely you have the power within you to undergo evolution rather than devolution, to lift yourself up from mere humanity to something higher, cleaner, purer …"


Loman was certain that Denny's drooling, silver-eyed incarnation was not a higher form than ordinary human existence, neither cleaner nor purer. In its way it was as much a degeneration as Mike Peyser's regression to a lupine shape or Coombs's descent into apelike primitiveness. Like Peyser, Denny had surrendered intellectual individuality to escape awareness of the emotionless life of a New Person; instead of becoming just one of a pack of subhuman beasts, he had become one of many dataprocessing units in a complex supercomputer network. He had relinquished the last of what was human in him—his mind—and had become something simpler than a gloriously complex human being.


A bead of drool fell from Denny's chin, leaving a wet circle on his denim-clad thigh.


Do you know fear now? Loman wondered. You can't love. Not any more than I can. But do you fear anything now?


Surely not. Machines could not feel terror.


Though Loman's conversion had left him unable to experience any emotion but fear, and though his days and nights had become one long ordeal of anxiety of varying intensity, he had in a perverse way come to love fear, to cherish it, for it was the only feeling that kept him in touch with the unconverted man he had once been. If his fear were taken from him, too, he would be only a machine of flesh. His life would have no human dimension whatsoever.


Denny had surrendered that last precious emotion. All he had left to fill his gray days were logic, reason, endless chains of calculations, the never-ending absorption and interpolation of facts. And if Shaddack was correct about the longevity of the New People, those days would mount into centuries.


Suddenly eerie electronic noises came from the boy again. They echoed off the walls.


Those sounds were as strange as the cold, mournful songs and cries of some species dwelling in the deepest reaches of the sea.


To call Shaddack and reveal Denny to him in this condition would be to encourage the madman in his insane and unholy pursuits. Once he saw what Denny had become, Shaddack might find a way to induce or force all of the New People to transform themselves into identical, thoroughgoing cybernetic entities. That prospect boosted Loman's fear to new heights.


The boy-thing fell silent again.


Loman drew his revolver from its holster. His hand was shaking badly.


Data rushed ever more frantically across the screen and swam simultaneously across the surface of Denny's molten eyes.


Staring at the creature that had once been his son, Loman dragged memories from the trunk of his pre-Change life, desperately trying to recall something of what he'd once felt for Denny—the love of father for son, the sweet ache of pride, hope for the boy's future. He remembered fishing trips they had taken together, evenings spent in front of the TV, favorite books shared and discussed, long hours during which they'd worked happily together on science projects for school, the Christmas that Denny had gotten his first bicycle, the kid's first date when he had nervously brought the Talmadge girl home to meet his folks…. Loman could summon forth images of those times, quite detailed memory -pictures, but they had no power to warm him. He knew he should feel something if he was going to kill his only child, something more than fear, but he no longer had that capacity. To hold fast to whatever remained of the human being in him, he ought to be able to squeeze out one tear, at least one, as he squeezed off the shot from the Smith & Wesson, but he remained dry-eyed.


Without warning something erupted from Denny's forehead.


Loman cried out and stumbled backward two steps in surprise.


At first he thought the thing was a worm, for it was shiny-oily and segmented, as thick as a pencil. But as it continued to extrude, he saw that it was more metallic than organic, terminating in a fish-mouth plug three times the diameter of the "worm" itself. Like the feeler of a singularly repulsive insect, it weaved back and forth in front of Denny's face, growing longer and longer, until it touched the computer.


He is willing this to happen, Loman reminded himself.


This was mind over matter, not short-circuited genetics. Mental power made concrete, not merely biology run amok. This was what the boy wanted to become, and if this was the only life he could tolerate now, the only existence he desired, then why shouldn't he be allowed to have it?


The hideous wormlike extrusion probed the exposed mechanism, where the cover plate had once been. It disappeared inside, making some linkage that helped the boy achieve a more intimate bond with Sun than could he had solely through his mutated hands and mercuric eyes.


A hollow, electronic, blood-freezing wail came from the boy's mouth, though neither his lips nor tongue moved.


Loman's fear of taking action was at last outweighed by his fear of not acting. He stepped forward, put the muzzle of the revolver against the boy's right temple, and fired two rounds.


17


Crouching on the back porch, leaning against the wall of the house, rising up now and then to look cautiously through the window at the three people gathered around the kitchen table, Chrissie grew slowly more confident that they could be trusted. Above the dull roar and sizzle of the rain, through the closed window, she could hear only snatches of their conversation. After a while, however, she determined that they knew something was terribly wrong in Moonlight Cove. The two strangers seemed to be hiding out in Mr. Talbot's house and were on the run as much as she was. Apparently they were working on a plan to get help from authorities outside of town.


She decided against knocking on the door. It was solid wood, with no panes in the upper half, so they would not be able to see who was knocking. She had heard enough to know they were all tense, maybe not as completely frazzle-nerved as she was her self, but definitely on edge. An unexpected knock at the door would give them all massive heart attacks—or maybe they'd pick up guns and blast the door to smithereens, and her with it.


Instead she rose up in plain sight and rapped on the window.


Mr. Talbot jerked his head in surprise and pointed, but even as he was pointing, the other man and the woman flew to their feet with the suddenness of marionettes snapped upright on strings. Moose barked once, twice. The three people—and the dog—stared in surprise at Chrissie. From the expression on their faces, she might have been not a bedraggled eleven-year-old girl but a chainsaw-wielding maniac wearing a leather hood to conceal a deformed face.


She supposed that right now, in alien-infested Moonlight Cove, even a pathetic, rain-soaked, exhausted little girl could be an object of terror to those who didn't know that she was still human. In hope of allaying their fear, she spoke through the windowpane:


"Help me. Please, help me."


18


The machine screamed. Its skull shattered under the impact of the two slugs, and it was blown out of its seat, toppling to the floor of the bedroom and pulling the chair with it. The elongated fingers tore loose of the computer on the desk. The segmented wormlike probe snapped in two, halfway between the computer and the forehead from which it had sprung. The thing lay on the floor, twitching, spasming.


Loman had to think of it as a machine. He could not think of it as his son. That was too terrifying.


The face was misshapen, wrenched into an asymmetrical real mask by the impact of the bullets as they'd torn through the cranium.


The silvery eyes had gone black. Now it appeared as if puddles of oil, not mercury, were pooled in the sockets in the thing's' skull.


Between plates of shattered bone, Loman saw not merely the gray matter he had expected but what appeared to be coiled wire, glinting shards that looked almost ceramic, odd geometrical shapes. The blood that seeped from the wounds was accompanied by wisps of blue smoke.


Still, the machine screamed.


The electronic shrieks no longer came from the boy-thing but from the computer on the desk. Those sounds were so bizarre that they were as out of place in the machine half of the organism as they had been in the boy half.


Loman realized these were not entirely electronic walls. They also had a tonal quality and character that were unnervingly "human."


The waves of data ceased flowing across the screen. One word was repeated hundreds of times, filling line after line on the display:


NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO …


He suddenly knew that Denny was only half dead. The part of the boy's mind that had inhabited his body was extinguished, but another fragment of his consciousness still lived somehow within the computer, kept alive in silicon instead of brain tissue. That part of him was screaming in this machine-cold voice.


On the screen:


WHERE'S THE REST OF ME WHERE'S THE REST, OF ME WHERE'S THE REST OF ME NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO….


Loman felt as if his blood was icy sludge pumped by a heart as jellied as the meat in the freezer downstairs. He had never known a chill that penetrated as deep as this one.


He stepped away from the crumpled body, which at last stopped twitching, and turned his revolver on the computer. He emptied the gun into the machine, first blowing out the screen. Because the blinds and drapes were closed, the room was nearly dark. He blasted the circuitry to pieces. Thousands of sparks flared in the blackness, spraying out of the data-processing unit. But with a final sputter and crackle, the machine died, and the gloom closed in again.


The air stank of scorched insulation. And worse.


Loman left the room and walked to the head of the stairs. He stood there a moment, leaning against the railing. Then he descended to the front hall.


He reloaded his revolver, holstered it.


He went out into the rain.


He got in his car and started the engine.


"Shaddack," he said aloud.


19


Tessa immediately took charge of the girl. She led her upstairs, leaving Harry and Sam and Moose in the kitchen, and got her out of her wet clothes.


"Your teeth are chattering, honey."


"I'm lucky to have any teeth to chatter."


"Your skin's positively blue."


"I'm lucky to have skin," the girl said.


"I noticed you're limping too."


"Yeah. I twisted an ankle."


"Sure it's just sprained?"


"Yeah. Nothing serious. Besides—"


"I know," Tessa said, "You're lucky to have ankles."


"Right. For all I know, aliens find ankles particularly tasty, the same way some people like pig's feet. Yuch."


She sat on the edge of the bed in the guest room, a wool blanket pulled around her nakedness, and waited while Tessa got a sheet from the linen supplies and several safety pins from a sewing box that she noticed in the same closet.


Tessa said, "Harry's clothes are much too big for you, so we'll wrap you in a sheet temporarily. While your clothes are in the dryer, you can come downstairs and tell Harry and Sam and me all about it."

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